Read Depestre’s Carnival

Please enjoy this excerpt from Kaiama L. Glover’s English translation of Hadriana

Long before the clock struck ten p.m., Hadriana Siloé’s catafalque had been placed between two rows of candles in the middle of Lovers Lane. The stars shone so low that they seemed part of the chapel. People had brought chairs and benches from all the nearby houses. When the open coffin arrived, all the carnival drums stopped at once. Not yet knowing what to do with my intense sadness, I took advantage of the sudden calm to slip into the crowd.

The carnivalesque bands had completely taken over every square meter of the plaza. As expected, the most prominent people of the southwest region were there. For the time being, musicians and dancers seemed to be bivouacked amongst their sleeping instruments: drums, vaksin, conch shells, rattles, saxophones, flutes, trumpets, and accordions. Dispersed here and there, eating and drinking under the trees, people began telling all those tales one tells at wakes.

I stopped first in front of a group of men dressed up as women. They had placed pillows and cushions under their green satin dresses, so as to simulate the final stages of pregnancy. They had the breasts and buttocks of the Venus Callipyge. Leaning on their clubs, the cross-dressers conversed with another group of revelers who, having wrapped themselves in white sheets and stuffed their ears and noses with cotton, spoke in decidedly nasal voices. A few steps away from these counterfeit-dead, a few half-naked werewolves, glazed from head to toe in cane syrup and soot, seemed to be plotting amongst themselves. The tin cones affixed to their fingertips clicked at the smallest of gestures. They had stuck orange peels between their teeth and lips, giving their faces terrifying expressions.

A little farther, I came upon Madame Lil’ Carême’s Charles-Oscars: adorned with blue and red kepis, they wore black fitted coats with saffron-yellow buttons, scarlet pants tucked into white gaiters, and giant spurs on their heels. Every Charles-Oscar boasted his military prowess with a sign hanging from his back: Colonel Later-and-Sadder, Commander-Who-Gives-Each-Household-Its-Share-of-Tribulations, Divisional-General-of-the-Seriously-Malicious-Member.

Camped out on the terrace of the Star Café were the Mathurins—that crew of devilish boys there to channel Jacmel’s esteemed Mathurin Lys, the magical delegate who had fought long ago to put our dreams on the map. Clothed in loose bathrobes, they sported colorful papier-mâché bolivar hats garnished with peacock feathers and long braids, and topped with assorted objects—horns, dolls, medallions, glass beads, small mirrors, amulets—all held together by a madras cloth and roped to a kind of bamboo mast.

Other masqueraders had set up camp on the eastern and western edges of the square. Indian caciques frolicked freely with young Arawak beauties whose bare breasts rested harmoniously above brightly colored pareos made of woven straw. Queen Elizabeth’s pirate bands—the Brothers of the Coast and the Dogs of the Sea—had tattoos of skulls and snake vertebrae on their torsos. Under Francis Drake’s tender gaze, they fearlessly felt up the sumptuous buttocks of Bambara African girls who wore nothing but flowered turbans, their pubis hidden by an elegant white velvet mask with phosphorescent lips and eyes.

Barons and marquesses of the court of Louis XIV played leapfrog on the lawn with friars in the habit of third-order Capuchins, rosaries on their belts, wooden crosses on their chests. High-ranking officers, black and mulatto, in the uniforms of the Grand Army of Napoleon, arm wrestled amicably with Marine Corps officers from the days when President Wilson’s assault troops occupied our island.

In the colorful crowd I also recognized Simon Bolívar himself: completely and totally naked, he was engaged in an epic parry and thrust with the fervent and barbarous flesh of Pauline Bonaparte, while Toussaint Louverture, in the governor of Saint-Domingue’s uniform, jokingly pulled the ear of General Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc, the magnificently cuckolded husband of the future Princess of Borghese.

King Christophe, on an official visit to Versailles, paced majestically—arm in arm with the wife of Charles X—in front of mirrors that reflected sparkling images of a pleasure party to come. In a neighboring salon, Alexandre Pétion, mulatto and republican, was busy kissing the prodigiously lyrical thighs of the very young Madame Récamier with a passion equal to that of the other Alexander, the Macedonian general.

A few feet away, the Haitian emperor Jacques the First played some form of table tennis with his partner, Generalissimo Stalin. Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili was decked out in the formal costume worn by all Russian czars. Those two petite fathers of their people showed equal dexterity as they volleyed a human head back and forth, the head having been shrunken using a technique invented by the Jivaros. This primitive ping-pong ball changed from black to white to yellow to red in accordance with whichever world championship was being disputed.

All over the square, the various masks reconstituted the particular time and space that corresponded with the heroes they represented, at the moment of their participation in the planet’s history. But historical memory had gotten mixed up to the point of ridiculousness, not unlike the paths that once led people from the capital to the Tarpeian Rock. Alongside all the legendary characters, but never truly joining them in their fantastic adventure, roamed a host of other Jacmelian visions, just as fancifully dressed, but who had opted for the less spectacular roles of pigs, orangutans, birds of prey, bulls, sharks, cobras, crocodiles, tigers, Tonton-Macoutes, and leopards.

This masked occasion had convoked three centuries of human history to my sister’s wake. Figures sculpted from the purest marble and figurines of rotten wood had come together to dance, sing, drink rum, and refuse death, kicking up the dust on my village square, which, in the midst of this general masquerade, took itself for the cosmic stage of the universe.

For another depiction of Jacmel’s carnival, written years later, we highly recommend Edwidge Danticat’s After the Dance (2007).

You can watch Danticat talk about the novel with Kaiama L. Glover here.